Grenoble (France) (AFP) - Two climbers and their guide have fallen 800 metres to their death in the Mont Blanc range, French police said on Monday, the latest in a series of tragedies on Europe's highest mountain.
"The fall of 800 metres (2,600 feet) gave them no chance," police said, adding they probably fell off a ridge that climbers must take to return to a nearby refuge hut.
"Investigations are ongoing to find out the cause of the fall. It's possible that an overhang of snow gave way under the group, preventing the guide from holding up his clients," police added.
Helicopter rescue teams discovered the bodies of the three victims on Sunday night near the Aiguille du Midi peak, which rises to 3,842 metres (12,605 feet).
Searches had been under way since Saturday evening.
The guide, in his 50s, had 25 years of experience and was president of the company of Vanoise guides, and his clients were a 43-year-old man and a 46-year-old woman, both from Paris.
"It's difficult to think of someone who knew the area better," said Denis Crabieres, head of the national mountain guides union.
The route the climbers were taking was not hard technically but "can become dangerous under certain conditions".
"The path can disappear in certain weather conditions," he added.
Nevertheless, it is a path taken by thousands of climbers and skiers every year.
- 'Tourist free for all' -
The deaths came just days after six climbers fell 250 metres to their death on another peak, the Aiguille d'Argentiere, and brings to 20 the number of dead or missing since the beginning of the climbing season.
That accident was the single worst loss of life on the mountain in more than two years.
An investigation is ongoing into the death of the group of the five French climbers and their experienced guide although bad weather is suspected to be the cause of the accident.
In addition to that tragedy, two Belgians were found dead on August 2 and six climbers died between July 15 and 30 -- two Irish, two Finns, a German and a French person.
A US climber sparked outrage earlier this month when he tried to climb the mountain with his nine-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter and got caught in an avalanche.
The family escaped uninjured, but video footage of the incident in a spot known as the "Corridor of Death" caused an outcry when it was broadcast in the United States last month.
That incident sparked fears that the mountain was becoming a tourist "free for all".
The major of the local town of Chamonix noted that both accidents in the past week happened on relatively easy climbs and with experienced accompanying guides but stressed: "The mountain always poses serious hazards."
"These are two blows of fate, two accidents that have floored us. It's terrible," said the mayor, Eric Fournier.
He said that the two accidents should not dent the reputation of mountain climbing, however, pointing out that "other sports and hobbies have even worse dangers".
The death toll in this climbing season is "relatively normal," he said.